The Art of Female Captaincy

With the ICC Women’s World Cup little more than a week away, the skippers of the eight competing nations are making their final preparations. In an article originally published in The Nightwatchman in 2016, Raf Nicholson asks whether gender matters when it comes to leading a cricket team…

“I presume that it is not sexist to assume… that the candidates [for captaincy] will be male.” Mike Brearley, The Art of Captaincy

What makes a good cricket captain? Many have tried to define the required qualities. England’s Ray Illingworth lists the attributes as: “the patience of a saint, the diplomacy of an ambassador, the compassion of a social worker and the skin of a rhino. Boundless enthusiasm, the insight of a psychologist and the smooth-talking style of a con-man might also come in handy.” More recently Michael Vaughan has written that the job involves being “a diplomat, strategist, spokesman, babysitter, actor, selector and disciplinarian”.

Then, of course, there is Mike Brearley’s supposedly definitive The Art of Captaincy. Brearley’s emphasis is on both strategy and man-management: “a captain,” he writes, “must get the best out of his team by helping them to play together without suppressing flair and uniqueness”.

Note the use of “his”. What makes a good cricket captain? Apparently, being male is one of the requisite characteristics.

Brearley is not alone in his assumption. The literature on the subject can be aptly summarised by the title of the first chapter of Illingworth’s own book on captaincy: “A Man for All Seasons”. In fact, studies generally show that when we have to picture a leader, we picture a man. This well-known psychological phenomenon is known as “think manager, think man”, and occurs because the traits we typically associate with leaders – forceful, dominant, strong, competent or even heroic – are stereotypically associated with men.

There has been very little written on the subject of captaincy in women’s cricket. But does it matter? In the words of former England captain Clare Connor: “The game is the same. The need to lead, to captain the team in whatever way you need to captain the team from a tactical perspective to win games of cricket is not going to change.” And yet instinctively I still felt – when I read that damning line of Brearley’s – that female captains would lead differently to male ones.

What of the reality?

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Imagine the following scenario – with you as captain. Maybe it’s a league game on a Sunday afternoon; maybe it’s a crucial Cup fixture. The opposition are chasing what is, considering the overs available, an eminently defendable total. You feel confident that the win is yours. But then your team appears to forget how to field. They drop catches, they miss easy saves on the boundary rope. Somehow, the game slips through your fingers. As far as you are concerned, your team has under-performed. Badly. What do you say to them, in the dressing-room afterwards?

How would two of the most effective captains of Middlesex in their time have handled it? Brearley, who for 12 years led Middlesex Men, describes a similar situation in The Art of Captaincy, which he responded to by:

explod[ing] at the side in the dressing room at Cheltenham… I harangued them for about ten minutes, along the lines that we seemed to be assuming that we only had to turn up on the ground to win.

He admits that his style often included shouting at players: “I used to hope that my impatience was a shortcoming that would be forgiven,” he writes, “because it came from minding; it showed that my energy was flowing into the job”.

The contrast with Beth Morgan – who represented England between 2003 and 2011, and who stepped down at the end of the 2014 season after eight years as captain of Middlesex Women – is striking. Players describe her approach as calm, intuitive and “softly, softly”; Morgan cannot remember ever shouting at or disciplining her players in a similar way to Brearley – even if they made mistakes. “That’s certainly not something that comes naturally to me,” she says. “Of course they’re going to make mistakes, but I’m a big believer that if players are giving their best, then I never think there’s really a reason to come hard at players.”

Both Brearley and Morgan were extremely talented captains. Morgan’s leadership – she led Middlesex to promotion to division one in 2010, and to the T20 finals in 2014 – was no less effective than Brearley’s at county level. Yet their approaches to player management could not have been more different.

Brearley has been much lauded as the ideal model for captaincy. But would Brearley’s harsher, straight-talking style have worked on a team of women? Unlikely. Current Scotland captain Abbi Aitken describes a scenario from a few years ago whereby, in the wake of a particularly poor performance by her team, their male coach decided that the right approach was to come down hard on the players: “He shouted at us, he was really, really harsh… he didn’t let us leave the ground until we’d headed over to the nets and just stood and all played straight. And he didn’t get a good response from that… we weren’t ready for a coach like that. We needed someone to be like, ‘unlucky’… To stand and give someone grief for a performance isn’t where we’re at.” Their subsequent performances did not improve.

This accords with Morgan’s own experiences. “Women tend to be a little bit more sensitive,” she says. “[The art of captaincy is] understanding that those characteristics might be a bit more prevalent in the female game, and having to be a bit sensitive to that.”

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Another captaincy scenario for you: a tactical dilemma this time. One of those instances when the opposition’s best batsman is striding to the crease, and you think you know – from the way the pitch is playing – the best way to dismiss them cheaply. The only problem is that your bowler and several other senior members of the team disagree with you. You think you’re right, but what do you do? Brearley’s response? “At times a decision must be made, and followed,” he says in The Art of Captaincy. “The message from the captain, at such a moment, may simply be, ‘Do it because I say so.’”

Current captain of England Women Charlotte Edwards approaches the situation differently.

In fact she suggests that bowlers like England’s Anya Shrubsole should not just be told what the wicket-taking plan is, but should always be involved in the process of creating that plan. “I’ll ask a bowler, ‘what’s the plan here?’ And if they can tell me, I’ll go, ‘yeah, fair enough… go for it.’”

For Edwards, this more interactive approach has been crucial to her success as captain. She thinks women need to be handled differently. “For me, the difference captaining boys is they never ask as many questions,” she says. “They just do it, and they want to be told what to do. With girls it’s very much they’ll ask a lot of questions and want to know why something’s happening or why you’re implementing something.” Edwards goes as far as to say that that captaining women is more challenging than captaining men. “They ask you so many questions! You have to take more time to coax them round.”

Current Middlesex captain Izzy Westbury, who also grew up in a male-dominated sporting environment, told me that people often say to her that she is a very “masculine” captain. Yet it’s noteworthy that, after leading Middlesex for only one season, she has already felt the need to tone down this more “masculine” approach.

“Initially I talked a lot, and stamped my authority around. And sometimes you overstep the mark, and I did.” The crisis in her captaincy came, she tells me, mid-way through the season: “We lost about four games in a row and I just thought, ‘what am I doing?’” How did she turn it around? “I had a long chat to Beth [Morgan], we got the team together, and we talked about what we could do, to help me. Since then, it’s gone a lot better. I’ve been a lot calmer.” The team’s results improved dramatically. The evidence seems to suggest that others seeking to captain in the women’s game would do well to follow Westbury’s example.

***

I’m guessing that many of those reading this will have some experience of cricket captaincy, but that not so many will have had to deal with the players crying on the pitch, either during or after the match. “As captain you have to be a bit sensitive to that,” Morgan tells me, “and give people time if they need it, or a bit of an arm round the shoulder if that’s what’s required as well.” “They’ll cry more, there’ll be a lot more tears after a game than in a men’s game,” says Edwards, and that often “girls need to release a little bit of emotion, and that’s how they do it.”

Are these kind of reactions because women are somehow innately more emotional or less mentally tough than men? Not necessarily. As Edwards explains, “Sometimes I’m captaining very young teams who have little to no experience, especially because the county game doesn’t prepare you for international cricket. So they’re not just dealing with their game, there’s suddenly all this other stuff going on. You have to help them with that as well.”

Connor agrees: “If you’re playing in front of 6,000 people at Hove and you perform badly with the bat and you’ve lost the Ashes, that situation is going to be much more stark and potentially unique [for a female cricketer] than for a man who’s been through more high-pressure situations. So therefore the response, whether it’s to the captain or to the coach or to each other, will be different.”

Additionally, there are clearly societal norms of masculinity which mean men may well feel under pressure not to react to defeat, or even victory, in such an openly emotional way. Just look at what happened to Kim Hughes in 1984, when he broke down in the middle of resigning from the Australian captaincy. He was completely vilified both by some of his teammates and by the media.

Ask Connor or Edwards, on the other hand, and they will both openly admit to tears, both on and off the pitch. “I had a lot to cry about,” laughs Connor. “We lost a lot! In times of huge disappointment, I would want to talk a lot, and show emotion.” Edwards recalls crying twice on the pitch: once after winning the World Cup final in Australia in 2009, and the second time in Australia in 2014, when she hit 92 not out at Hobart to win the Twenty20 for her team and with it the Ashes.

But is the fact that male captains and players are expected to be ever stoical really helpful in the long run? Surely an open display of emotion is simply an expression of how much the game means to players, an outward manifestation of their pride in representing their country, and their determination not to let their team down?

***

It might seem that all this is grounded in generalisations. But when you talk to coaches who have worked in both men’s and women’s cricket, and female players who have been involved in both men’s and women’s teams, you realise they are all saying the same thing. Both Edwards and Connor, for example, as well as experiencing success at the helm of England in recent years, also have experience of captaining male teams: Edwards was made captain of Huntingdonshire Boys by the time she was 12. And, pertinently, both see the two experiences as being significantly different. “Every cricketer has different ways of doing things,” says Connor, “but captaining a group of women is different.”

This is an abridged version of a piece that first appeared in issue 14 of The Nightwatchman, the Wisden cricket quarterly. To read more go to www.thenightwatchman.net.

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